Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

When I was in my junior year of high school, my English teacher often used a combination of in-class reading and homework assignments to get us through our books, one of which was Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the time, I was only vaguely aware that the book even existed, so I didn’t really know what I was in for. What I was in for was this: we were going to be saying the word “nigger” out loud in class, something I did not know was going to happen until the second that it did.

I cannot speak for anyone else who was reading the book, but being a white kid at the age of sixteen, I was thoroughly ignorant about modern race issues and only vaguely aware of the history of racism in the US. I went to school and made friends with people of color, but I had no understanding of race in our culture and when I was picked to read out loud in class, it was the first time that this word had ever come out of my mouth.

The experience of saying that word was shocking, and my teacher hadn’t given us any warning. Nor did she stop to explain during or after any of the numerous times that she, my classmates, or I had to read the word out loud what exactly was going on. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here to say this, but during that experience I got the impression that my white peers were probably just as mystified by the use of this upsetting word as I was.

Not so long ago I may have been happy to see the 200+ instances of the word cut from NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of the novel. The amount of discomfort I felt when I stumbled over speaking the word “nigger” aloud for the first time did not entirely fade with time. It had nothing to do with wanting to erase the existence of the word from history (or to whitewash the book) so much as my own fear of saying something so utterly loaded. Even after years of internet use and exposure to communities where people thought it was “funny” and “edgy” to throw the word around I have not become numb to it–I am still painfully aware of how toxic it can be when I encounter it today. But at sixteen, I did not immediately understand why my teacher had expected me to say it or even why Twain had used it at all. I did not understand that I even could say it out loud without being actively racist.

I think that avoiding the use of such a slur in speech, writing, and even reading comes from a place of genuine sensitivity. It is important to acknowledge that people who do not want to read a novel with these words in it are, in general, against racism. In my case, I felt the way I did because I was operating under the (incorrect) assumption that the use of this word unconditionally reflected back onto its user as an indicator of racism. The dominant mindset in white culture is that racism only occurs in the broadest and most obvious ways possible and is only perpetuated by those with malicious intentions. The idea that if someone “didn’t mean anything” by what they have said or done, or that if they “love black people”, it means that they cannot do or say anything that is racist–it means that the only people who could possibly be racist are those who want to be. Most of us who are involved in the social justice movement are aware that this is, of course, terribly inaccurate.

I think it is easy for those of us who actively identify as anti-racist to forget, as Angus Johnston of studentactivism.net writes:

“As a white person, to get up in front of a classroom of students of color and tell them about how race works? It’s weird. It’s frightening. It’s uncomfortable.

Even weirder, even more frightening, even less comfortable is to then open up the floor to discussion.”

It is, I think, this situation of fear and discomfort that people are coming from when they resist the use of slurs in Huck Finn. And being afraid of offending other people is pretty indicative that they DO mean well, I think; being sensitive to issues of race is so important. It’s obviously what most of us are fighting for. Where the problem comes in is that in the dominant culture (particularly in the US), the fear is sometimes so strong that conversations about race issues, along with other socially “taboo” subjects, are avoided altogether. This is where the fatal flaw of those who wanted this edition of the book to be printed occurs: rather than discuss the social climate and the context in which the word is used in the story and how the word has evolved since then, the fear of being labeled a racist when one doesn’t “mean” to be racist during these conversations becomes so strong that many people choose to avoid those conversations altogether.

When I said the word “nigger” for the first time I was actually afraid that other people would think I was a racist just for saying what was printed on the page I was reading from. I was so scared of being called a racist or offending someone that I thought this meant that I couldn’t possibly be racist! I thought that merely being afraid of offending someone was enough to make me entirely un-racist and “color-blind”. I had no understanding of the subconscious and subtle shades of racism that are rampant in our culture and how they influenced even my own attitudes.

Racism is a toxic force, and it hurts people. This is common knowledge. But as a society we are quick to believe that only those who delight in the misery of others and actively celebrate oppression for its own sake are the only ones who are capable of engaging in such forces. We are quick to believe that we are too “nice” to do it because it’s something that only “mean” and “evil” people can do.

And that is why these conversations are so important. Most white people do not want to be called a racist, and certainly don’t think of themselves as racist. Most white people, even the ones who do or say racist things, are certainly not mean or evil. But the only way that one can really insure that generally he or she is being truly sensitive to people of other races is to have these conversations and to stay aware of race in a social and political context. By actively avoiding such discussion, it’s put “out of sight and out of mind” and so it’s easy to be politically incorrect or offensive without realizing what is problematic about one’s own behavior. If we aren’t actively acknowledging and discussing how our behavior affects others or what it might imply to those we encounter, then we are ignoring the only tools and pathways that we have to making sure that our actions and words aren’t hurting people.

It was unfair that I had to face the use of this word as a student without a sensitive discussion of it and of race in general. But I was able to work out in my mind eventually that it was present in the novel because it was present in that period of history. It gave me a greater understanding of how people of color had to face the word and that, for a big part of history, the use of that word and much of the treatment that came along with it was both common and socially acceptable–encouraged, even. But because my teacher did not, for whatever her reasons were, talk about this word or raise a discussion about race and the use of the word in our present culture, it was many years after before I was able to connect that part of history with where our society is today. And without that understanding of the racism of our past, I would have no context in which to understand how racism exists and functions in our society today.

Very few people, if any, want to be racist. But it is imperative that we do not erase instances of racism from our history because then we erase the chance for discussion and for awareness. Without those things, we will never be able to identify and deal with instances of racism that happen today. It ignores racism altogether, and that is what makes people mistakenly believe that we live in a “post-racism” society. The people who are publishing this edition of Huckleberry Finn and the people who have banned previous editions have their hearts in the right place (I think), but at the end of the day they are hurting their own cause. Their actions will only serve to help shut down some of our younger generation’s most important chances for disucssion.


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